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Frankenstein... do you dream

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

When did Big Apple insomniacs last have it this good? As if Dracula, the Musical weren't enough, the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of Frankenstein... do you dream is now on hand through October 2 to provide yet another maximum-strength theatrical sleep aid for the weary New York masses.

Not that the cast members don't do everything they can vocally to keep you awake: Craig Schulman (as Victor Frankenstein), Philip Hernández (as his monster), and Douglas Jabara (as Frankenstein's friend, Henry) have dynamic, powerful voices that almost seem too big for the tiny Belt Theater. They use them at every conceivable opportunity, belting to the rafters (and beyond) this pop-heavy, gothic bomb of a score. (The music director is Glenn Morley, who also receives credit for arranging and orchestrating the score, likely shorthand for "programming the synthesizer," which is used to haltingly electronic effect.)

That score, as well as the book, was written by Robert George Asselstine, who is apparently trying to tell a more faithful version of Mary Shelley's original story than most adaptations. Fidelity does exist here - the show has scenes set at the North Pole, dealing with the lynching of a young woman for the crimes of the monster, and so on - but Asselstine does Shelley very few favors. Gone is any sense of tension or intrigue, and any examination of hatred and revenge is likewise secondary to the wailing of anguished pop tunes that Frank Wildhorn might have rejected as too over-the-top for his own shows.

The show isn't completely sung-through, but it might as well be; the book scenes are barely fragments, providing tiny bits of connecting story at best while the actors are revving up for their next belting session. But more dialogue and less singing might help clarify the story, which never once proves engaging emotionally or intellectually. Why exactly does Frankenstein do what he do? What does his monster really want - world domination, or love and acceptance?

Asselstine makes almost no specific choices, and so renders Frankenstein ineffectual and boring and the monster loud and violent but never threatening. Climaxing each act with a confrontation between Frankenstein and his creation doesn't help matters, and the writing produces far too much ado about practically nothing. Trying to follow or absorb the ridiculously overblown sung dialogue becomes a chore of almost Herculean proportions after a while; Asselstine, obviously aware of this, includes a detailed plot synopsis in the back of the program. (For future reference, writing a clearer show is the course of action most theatregoers prefer.)

Director Eric Till does what he can with limited resources - the Belt stage is tiny, making interesting stage pictures difficult to create. Still, scenic designer Dana Kenn's faux-foreboding "scary forest" backdrop is a half-hearted attempt, and Till never picks up on the feeling it's supposed to impart to the proceedings. Lighting designer Traci Klainer does perhaps a bit better, generally ensconcing the monster in shadows, but there's no real staging concept to be found here. At least Till reaches his nadir early, having Frankenstein finish his first Big Solo facing upstage.

That's about the only reason Schulman should feel any personal resentment: The show is, in just about every other way, a spectacular vocal showcase for him, and he does as much as can be expected with the generally limited acting opportunities he's offered. Hernández has a voice just as thrilling, but the monster is so underwritten, he often seems to be stalking about the staging snapping people's necks at random; Jabara's role is slight, but he gets the opportunity to throw out a few rich money notes. Amy Russ, as Frankenstein's betrothed, lacks the other cast members' vocal resources, but brings a charming simplicity and sense of reality to the otherwise frustratingly overwrought production.

One can't help but hope that, if Frankenstein... do you dream moves on from NYMF, Asselstine will continue the process of re-evaluating the production and maybe even add more humanity to it. Power-belting is fine as far as it goes, but emotions are traditionally where it's at in musical theatre. If Asselstine is unwilling or unable to bring feeling to his show, perhaps it's best if it - like this production's audience - just rests in peace.

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New York Musical Theatre Festival
Frankenstein... do you dream
Through October 2
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with one intermission
Belt Theater, 336 West 37th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101